What was your path to Gov 2.0?
I came to government straight out of university (Iâ€™d actually wanted to work in local government since I was 17, if can you believe it) where I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work my way around a local city council and poke, prod and challenge existing practice.
During this time, I was exposed to a wide range of public services and bodies and became very aware of the gap between image and reality surrounding people working in government. The vast majority are hard working, committed individuals who do it out of love and a real passion to change the world. But they are hindered all the way by bad management, poor leadership, a culture of risk aversion and blockers like awful IT systems that are made by robots for robots. I refused to believe things had to be this way.
And then I came across this guy James Governor who was talking about this thing called Enterprise 2.0 at an event I was at. He was young, fun and wore crazy clothes and showed how business was being changed by this web 2.0 thing. James also introduced me to Twitter and rest is history on that front.
I was struck by the potential for its application within government, a way of bringing people together, to humanise government, to move towards a more humble, relevant, empowering, open government.
I founded FutureGov 2 years ago as a way to try and influence the sector and help make this aspiration a reality. FutureGov is a â€œa consultancy-cum-social innovation incubator helping to shape the future of government,” meaning we spend a lot of time working with government (officers and politicians alike) to help it get its head around how it needs to act/behave in this new world, strategising solutions and building tools for them to use.
We also enjoy inventing things. We sit at the intersection between geeks and government and therefore tend to have a lot of ideas about how this technology and user-centrred approaches such as service design can be applied in this context, whether itâ€™s networking politicians, bringing service users together to re-imagine public services that work for them or creating new solutions to age old problems such as child protection or social care.
What does Gov 2.0 mean in the UK?
The term Gov 2.0 isnâ€™t actually used a great deal in the UK. Weâ€™ve heard it from the US and elsewhere, but our core group of open government enthusiasts tend to prefer the term â€˜Digital Engagement.’ At the Gov20Camp back in March I made the bold statement that Gov 2.0 wouldnâ€™t go big in the UK as a term â€“ typical UK being different! While I stand by that statement, I do now wish we would adopt it. Digital engagement really doesnâ€™t capture the movement in its widest sense. And #Gov20 works so much better as a tag ;-)
Much like in the US, the majority of digital engagement in the UK has been about a race to develop shiny new websites and get government agencies on Twitter and the whole spectrum of social tools. The focus has predominantly been on better PR and communications which has indeed led to some improvements, but even then nowhere near as rapidly as you might hope.
Again as with the US, the UK has also developed an obsession with â€˜open dataâ€™. We actually led in this space with initiatives like the Power of Information Taskforce, but implementation was slow and it actually took some determined individuals such as Tom Watson and the election of Obama to create sufficient momentum to get this moving. As with most governments, the UK Government rarely moves on anything without proof of success elsewhere first. Obama has been great for us from that perspective.
Some say the upcoming General Election will provide the catalyst for real and rapid change in this area, particularly if the Conservative Party are elected, but given the poor state of all major partiesâ€™ online election campaigning, I wonâ€™t hold my breath. But at least with that kind of commitment to transparency up front we have a great pledge to hold them to in power. But if this is our first internet election, it will be a low key affair. Iâ€™d say weâ€™re a good 5-10 years behind the US on this front.
What’s the climate for open government in the UK?
There has been some great work done so far in pockets. Government has begun to experiment, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills perhaps leading the way. There have also been some major events, such as the MPs expenses scandal, where forces outside of government have led to step changes in government behaviour jumping only once pushed. We are also blessed with a small but perfectly formed core group of government geeks, freelancers, social entrepreneurs and even opposition parties putting the pressure on and pushing for change.
We are also seeing more initiatives such as data.gov.uk, the London Store, openlylocal and others, who are getting hold of the open data agenda and pulling it kicking and screaming. This is now being backed up by the odd US style competition and some key innovation investment funds (such as the IDeAâ€™s customer insight and social media fund or NESTAâ€™s digital test beds programme), encouraging government staffers, social entrepreneurs and geeks alike to get inventing.
But, overall, quite honestly there is still a lot more talk than action. Few inside government are willing to truly invest the time and effort in digital engagement in the UK, with much of the best Gov 2.0 work being led by non-profits and parts of the private sector (although the big consultancies are nowhere to be seen on this in the UK unlike in the US). The Power of Information Review once led the way globally, but a lack of backing and investment in the agenda has meant it has progressed extremely slowly and we have now fallen behind. Local Councils across the country and departments at a national level remain steadfastly silent, citing a lack of evidence of outcomes as a reason to wait and see. But with few willing to experiment how is this possible?
This is not helped by a chronic lack of resources now and even more so in coming years in government, where Gov 2.0 or digital engagement is seen as a luxury rather than a necessity. Conversely it could (and should) be argued that Gov 2.0 is the best response to the forthcoming â€˜public sector recession.’ Such an economic climate should clear the way for cheaper open source solutions and encourage government bodies to better work with citizens to create better outcomes for all through more collaborative (and cheaper means), empowering people to do more for themselves and reduce the burden on the public purse.
Until the case for Gov 2.0 / digital engagement can be made (in terms of efficiency and effectiveness), it will never go mainstream and therefore never reach its full potential.
What part of Gov 2.0 most excites you?
Without a doubt social innovation is the UKâ€™s most promising, up-and-coming sector in terms of opening up and disrupting government from the outside and a movement I am very excited and lucky to be a part of.
Yes, moves to open up government data are important, but really this is just one building block on the road to a more effective relationship between citizen and state, which I fear data geeks often forget. We must not lose sight of the outcomes we are looking to achieve.
Most important and interesting of all is how these building blocks can be used to support public service users to make decisions for themselves, working with government to design and deliver public services that better meet the needs of the end user in which the user plays a key role.
Projects such as Southwark Circle, School of Everything and even some FutureGov projects like Enabled by Design that are leading the way in this field, working with or without government to demonstrate how the world could look in a logical progression of web 2.0 and citizen co-production. The idea that government needs to shift to act very much as an enabler of social change and action, not sole public service provider.
This will require a huge shift in mindset with a significant change management challenge ahead. It will require the government to learn to trust the people it is there to serve and work with them to redesign services to be far more co-produced and personalised. This is not about data, not about websites even. Itâ€™s about vision, brave leadership, and effective management, creating a government that is willing to prototype new approaches to public service delivery. So not much to ask then! ;-)